Ecuadorian resurrects single-celled fungi and recreates beer from 400 years ago

Bioengineer Javier Carvajal believes that the drink is the oldest in Latin America; microorganism was the key to recover the secret formula

RODRIGO BUENDIA / AFP400 year old beer
Craft beer bottle made with a 400-year-old yeast that Carvajal resurrected in a laboratory at his home

After a decade of research and testing, Ecuadorian bioengineer Javier Carvajal has managed to recreate a beer from 400 years ago. He believes she is the oldest in the Latin America. This achievement was only possible because he resurrected a yeast. The microorganism was the key to recovering the formula of the drink made in Quito in 1566 by Friar Jodoco Ricke, the Franciscan of Flemish origin who introduced wheat and barley to the current Ecuadorian capital, according to historians. It was at the Convento de São Francisco, an imposing three-hectare complex built between 1537 and 1680, that he found what he was looking for. From inside a barrel he extracted a splinter and under the microscope he saw the organism that had ended up, after a long period of cultivation, allowing him to “resurrect” the yeast. Carvajal knew, through specialized publications, about the old brewery in the capital of Ecuador. He had recovered other yeast and insisted on finding the one from the Franciscans’ drink. It took a year to reach it in 2008. With the discovery “we have recovered not only a biological treasure, but also a silent work of 400 years of domestication of a yeast that probably came from a chicha (ancient fermented corn drink) and that was collected in the environment”, he explained.

Carvajal, found in an article the vaguely described formula of the drink of the 16th century Franciscans. Gradually he filled in the information gaps until he revived the drink with flavors of cinnamon, cloves and sugar cane. “There were many gaps in this recipe and my job was to fill those gaps (…) This is a work of brewery archeology, within microbial archeology”, which he had done to rescue the yeast, responsible for much of the flavor of the drink, comments the bioengineer who has not yet set an exact date for its launch or a price. Carvajal belongs to a family of brewmasters and has devoted a decade to recovering the brewing secret, he says, just for the pleasure of “the value of the intangible”. The bioengineer believes that this beer is the oldest in Latin America, because, according to historian Javier Gomezjurado, San Francisco “was the first brewery, at least in Hispanic America”. In 1566, when it began to function, there were only “eight friars” in the convent and production was “minimal”, says the author of the book “Las bebes de antaño en Quito”. With the passage of time and the introduction of machines, the original formulas gradually disappeared. The brewery closed its doors around 1970, but modern drinks were already being consumed at that time.

400 year old beer

Javier Carvajal shows a glass of craft beer made with 400-year-old yeast │RODRIGO BUENDIA / AFP

*With information from AFP

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